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Pet project in tatters

ROBERTO Mancini's relationship with Mario Balotelli is a stage play in which the strict father veers between an iron rod and tenderness with no benefit to either side. Arthur Miller could have been the author.

Still to be resolved is whether the domineering patriarch realises the son's spirit is untamable or the boy finally sees the pain he is causing the man who is trying to help him. Here is a third ending: Mancini stops confusing the player with his alternating soft-dad, tough-dad approach, but Balotelli remains in the grip of a personality that brings him problems everywhere he goes.

Diagnosing a footballer's state of mind in a newspaper column is not really on. Yet there are people with no interest in the game who are convinced Balotelli is troubled in ways only those closest to him may understand. One of those insiders is Mancini, who would be justified in buying a chauffeur's cap and driving his unpredictable striker to Manchester airport with a one-way ticket to Palookaville.

With the Premier League title he won in May, Mancini has no further need to justify the £24million he spent to bring Balotelli from Inter Milan, where Jose Mourinho considered him "unmanageable".

This is no longer about self-justification on the Manchester City manager's part. Nor is it about Balotelli's erratic talent. Mancini appears to be on some private mission to save a lost soul. And, with his constantly mixed messages, he is making a terrible mess of it, however good his intentions.

The classic case in point was promoting Super Mario to the starting XI for the recent home game against Manchester United and then taking him off after 52 minutes. Contrary to popular belief, Balotelli was no worse in the first half that day than at least half the City players. Yet he was the one subjected to the biggest barrage from Mancini as he bounced around the coaching zone.

This is where we see the contradiction. Mancini puts him in the side for the biggest game of the season and then hammers him from the get-go.

Mancini jokes to the press ("this is Mario - you never know", he grins) and then lectures him in public about faults City have failed to correct. The message is always the same: Mario must learn, adapt, conform, submit, fall into line.

Balotelli's self-absorption is certainly farcical. The excitement of playing drains from him with no warning. His shoulders sag, his gait slackens and his eyes dip. From then on he has no interest in the collective, which must sicken City's other players. It would be worth counting the times, though, that his spirits have collapsed after a blast from Mancini, who cannot decide whether to love or fight his mohican-haired enigma.

My point is that it has to be one or the other. The clear boundaries are there but so is the indulgence. The criticism is sharp and the praise is gooey.

A personal theory is that Balotelli has persuaded himself he is some kind of genius: a performer, rather than a player, who should not be constrained by the normal hustle and bustle. He looks unable to reconcile Mancini's flattery with the verbal battering he takes when a back-heel goes wrong or he fails to chase back to help defenders.

The £340,000 club fine he agreed to pay on Wednesday after nearly taking City to a tribunal only added to the catalogue of slapstick. But there is a darker undercurrent to all this. A seemingly capricious willingness to accept his punishment for repeated breaches of discipline suggests his agent may have told him there are few escape routes open in Italy or elsewhere.

While Mancini's loyalty is stretched to snapping point, other players grumble about his special status and City's Middle Eastern owners recoil from the fuss he creates, Balotelli himself becomes ever more isolated: his talent ever more peripheral to the main tale of unreliability and extreme eccentricity.

Still HD-fresh is the memory of him destroying Germany in this summer's Euro 2012 semi-finals. Balotelli was not indulged by Cesare Prandelli, the Italy coach, or by his team-mates. There were no special exemptions. He seemed happiest on those terms. Yet even Prandelli is giving up now. Balotelli is not expected to make the Italy squad to face Holland in February.

The simplest conclusion is that he and Mancini now inhabit a dysfunctional relationship that must be ended for the good of both sides. But there is no better place for him to crash cars, let off fireworks, fight with team-mates on the training ground or make a mess of wrapping Christmas presents.

He is stuck in the middle ground between pest and manager's pet. In that sense Mancini is not helping him by dragging this out. The rescue act has failed. Balotelli is the master of his own fate, good or bad.